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Meaning in life

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Some individuals experience a sense of meaning in their life or work. Such experiences tend to correspond to wellbeing. Importantly, this sense of meaning arises in individuals who are very aware of their true self--characteristics they possess but can always express, for some reason.

Schnell, Hoge, and Pollet (2013) defined meaning--both in life and in work--as a sense of coherence, direction, significance, and belonging. A sense of coherence implies the activities of individuals align to their broader goals, called vertical coherence, and their activities or goals do not contradict each other, called horizontal coherence. A sense of direction implies that some purpose guides decisions, pursuits, and personal development. A sense of significance implies that individuals feel their activities are consequential , reminiscent of self-efficacy. And finally, belongingness implies that people feel they are part of a broader force.

Antecedents to meaning in life

True self

Schlegel, Hicks, Arndt, and King (2009) showed that individuals who are more aware of their true self--the traits, qualities, interests, preferences, tendencies, and flaws they possess but seldom express or demonstrate in life, except with their closest friends perhaps--are more likely to experience meaning in life. That is, some individuals might, for example, experience a fascination with lizards, espouse various supernatural causes, and enjoy cartoons but, for some reason, feel obliged to curb these interests in most settings. Individuals who, perhaps despite curbing some of these tendencies, are aware of their true self are more inclined to experience meaning in life.

In particular, Schlegel, Hicks, Arndt, and King (2009) conducted a set of studies to assess accessibility of the true self. For example, some participants were instructed to specify ten words that reflect their true self, defined as characteristics they possess and would like to express but, for some reason, cannot always demonstrate. Other participants were instructed to specify ten words that reflect their actual self, defined as characteristics they possess and often express in social settings.

Either minutes or even weeks later, a series of items, which comprised these words as well as other adjectives, were presented on a screen. Participants had to decide as rapidly as possible whether these words apply to themselvses. Individuals who can rapidly recognize whether words that represent their true self apply to themselves are assumed to demonstrate more access to this true self.

These individuals were more likely to endorse items, such as I understand my life's meaning, indicating a clear sense of purpose and meaning. This relationship persisted even after the extent to which personal needs were satisfied was controlled. Hence, access to the true self correlates with meaning in life.

In other studies, conducted by Schlegel, Hicks, Arndt, and King (2009), true self was primed rather than measured. That is, some participants were again instructed to specify ten words that reflect their true self, defined as characteristics they possess and would like to express but, for some reason, cannot always demonstrate. Other participants were instructed to specify ten words that reflect their actual self, defined as characteristics they possess and often express in social settings.

Later, participants were asked to complete a lexical decision task, deciding upn whether a series of items represents words or non-words. Immediately before each of these items appeared, either words that represent the true self or actual self were presented subliminally. After participants were exposed to words that represent the true self, they were subsequently more inclined to endorse items that represent meaning in life.

When individuals are aware of their true self, which includes their genuine preferences and interests, they are more cognizant of why some behaviors and pursuits seem important and meaningful. In other words, the source of their meaning is more salient. When the source of meaning is more salient, their life feels more important and purposeful.

This perspective has been echoed by many other scholars. Debrats, Drost, and Hansen (1995) asked participants to describe a time when they felt their life was most meaningful or meaningless. Through content analyses, the authors discovered that meaning in life was often coincided with a sense of accessibility or contact with the self--such as when they felt close to their feelings and divorced from societal expectations or obligations.


As Hicks, Cicero, Trent, Burton, and King (2010) demonstrated, a reliance on intuition, if coupled with positive affect, can instill a sense of meaning. In one study, for example, participants were asked to specify the extent to which they trust their hunches, feelings, and intuitions. Next, they indicated the extent to which they experience positive or negative emotions. Finally, they read various passages or observed abstract art and, then, were asked to specify the extent to which these pieces instilled a sense of meaning. For example, they were asked "How much does the passage make sense?". Trust in intuition was positively related to meaning, but only when participants experienced positive emotions. A subsequent study confirmed this finding, except the measure of meaning was different: Participants specified the extent to which events like Hurricane Katrina confirm what they know about human nature.

To explain these findings, Hicks, Cicero, Trent, Burton, and King (2010) maintained that positive moods facilitate the application of intuition. That is, if individuals prefer to utilize their intuition to reach decisions, positive mood states can facilitate this attempt. Hence, the combination of a preference towards intuition and positive mood evokes intuitive processes. These intuitive processes enable individuals to appreciate the broader implications of various events, translating to a sense of meaning. Consistent with this proposition, the capacity to identify associations between three words that are remotely associated with each other was positively related to intuition, but only when positive affect was elevated (Hicks, Cicero, Trent, Burton, & King, 2010).


According to Routledge, Arndt, Wildschut, Sedikides, Hart, Juhl, Vingerhoets, and Schlotz (2011), feelings of nostalgia may imbue life with a sense of meaning. In particular, when individuals reflect on nostalgic episodes in their life, they feel more connected to past people, pets, and objects. Because of this sense of connection, they feel their behaviors are consequential and significant rather than meaningless and pointless. They feel their life is embedded within an enduring network or narrative.

Routledge, Arndt, Wildschut, Sedikides, Hart, Juhl, Vingerhoets, and Schlotz (2011) conducted a series of studies that substantiate this association between nostalgia and meaning in life. In one study, participants first reflected upon two of their favorite songs and indicated the extent to which they felt nostalgic, loved, and that life is worth living after listening to these songs. They also listened to two popular songs and again specified the degree to which they felt nostalgic, loved, and that life is worth living after listening to these songs. If participants experienced nostalgia, they were also more inclined to perceive life as worth living, reflecting a variant of meaning in life. This association was mediated by the degree to which they felt loved, reflecting social connectedness.

In the second study, some participants identified some lyrics they felt evoked nostalgia. Other participants represented a yoked control, in which they listened to the same lyrics, but had not specified these songs evoked nostalgia. In addition, participants completed scales that assess whether they perceive their life as meaningful and whether they feel socially connected. The measure of social connection included several subscales, such as whether they feel they can speak to people to guide their decisions, whether they can depend on anyone in an emergency, whether anyone admires their talents, and whether they derive a sense of security from anyone. Again, nostalgia was associated with a sense of meaning, and this association was mediated by social connectedness.

Subsequent studies confirmed this association between nostalgia and meaning. For example, when individuals were asked to reflect upon how the world is meaningless (cf., the meaning maintenance model), they were more likely to feel nostalgic. Similarly, when individuals experienced nostalgia, the association between threats to meaning and corresponding problems, such as impaired wellbeing or defensive reactions, tended to diminish.

Transformational leadership

Arnold, Turner, Barling, Kelloway, and McKee (2007) argued that transformational leaders promote meaning in life, at least in the context of work. Transformational leaders promulgate an inspiring vision of the future and offer followers the support to pursue this direction (Burns, 1978). In particular, transformational leaders inspire followers to pursue motives that transcend the self, which connects their work to more enduring and meaningful endeavors (Burns, 1978& Bass, 1985). Hence, each work task and activity is infused with a sense of moral purpose and commitment (Shamir, House, & Arthur, 1993). Second, transformational leaders offer positive cues towards followers, which highlights the importance and significance of this work (Arnold, Turner, Barling, Kelloway, & McKee, 2007).

Indeed, several studies have shown empirical relationships between transformational leadership and meaning at work (e.g., Arnold, Turner, Barling, Kelloway, & McKee, 2007). Transformational leadership is associated with a belief that work confers a higher meaning, transcending the mere need to accumulate money (Sparks & Schenk, 2001). Likewise, transformational leadership is associated with a decline in work alienation, which partly reflects whether individuals feel their job relates to a broader purpose (Sarros, Tanewski, Winter, Santora, & Densten, 2002).

Work characteristics

In addition to leadership, various characteristics of the job itself can increase the likelihood that individuals experience a sense of meaning at work. The seminal job characteristics model, developed by Hackman and Oldham (1980), argued that work is meaningful if individuals are granted sole responsibility to complete specific tasks, called identity, that are important to the overall functioning of the organziation, called signficance, and entails variety. Adequate feedback and autonomy also impart this sense of meaning.

Indeed, transformational leaders often cultivate organizations in which these job characteristics are prevalent. Thus, transformational leadership might increase meaning by fostering suitable job characteristics (Piccolo & Colquitt, 2006).

Counterfactual thinking

Counterfactual thinking, in which individuals reflect upon how events might have unfolded differently, tends to instill a sense of meaning (Galinsky, Liljenquist, Kray, & Roese, 2005), ultimately enhancing attachment or commitment to various entities, like organizations. This possibility was substantiated by Kray, George, Liljenquist, Galinsky, Tetlock, and Roese (2010). In this study, participants reflected upon a pivotal event in their lives. Some of the participants also considered how this event could have unfolded differently. This reflection on counterfactual possibilities increased the likelihood the event was perceived as meaningful.

Specifically, in these studies, the participants were college students--an age in which individuals begin to develop an internalized, dynamic narrative of their lives (McAdams, 2006). In the first study, participants reflected upon the sequence of events that preceded their decision to attend their university. Some, but not all, of the participants were asked to describe "all the ways that things could have turned out differently". Finally, the extent to which individuals perceived this decision as meaningful and significant, as epitomized by questions like "Coming to Northwestern has added meaning to my life", was assessed. Counterfactual thoughts about how their life could have unfolded differently increased the sense this decision was meaningful (Kray, George, Liljenquist, Galinsky, Tetlock, & Roese, 2010).

The second study was similar, except half the participants reflected upon events that could have prevented them from meeting their best friend. The other participants, in the control group, reflected upon details of this meeting instead rather than counterfactual thoughts. If participants had reflected upon counterfactual thoughts, they perceived this relationship as more meaningful (Kray, George, Liljenquist, Galinsky, Tetlock, & Roese, 2010).

The third study examined factors that mediate the relationship between counterfactual thoughts about important transitions in life and the extent to which these transitions are perceived as meaningful. In particular, after individuals reflect upon how some episode might not have unfolded, they become more inclined to assume this event must have been fated. This sense of destiny curbs the unpleasant assumption that life is random. They feel that, of all the possible alternatives, the likelihood of this specific sequence of events is so improbable that fate must be responsible. They feel this event thus aligns to their destiny or purpose. Consistent with this proposition, participants who reflected upon the consequences that would have unfolded had some transition in their lives never transpired were more like to ascribe this event to fate (Kray, George, Liljenquist, Galinsky, Tetlock, & Roese, 2010).

The final study showed that, in addition to fate, counterfactual thoughts increases the likelihood that individuals will become aware of the benefits and advantages of some transition, also instilling a sense of meaning. Interestingly, relative to these counterfactual thoughts, specifically asking people to think about how some event is significant is not as likely to evoke this sense of fate, amplify the benefits, or instill meaning (Kray, George, Liljenquist, Galinsky, Tetlock, & Roese, 2010).

Ersner-Hershfield, Galinsky, Kray, and King (2010) extended these findings, demonstrating that counterfactual thinking can elicit an attachment or commitment to organizations, nations, and other entities. In one study, for example, some participants were asked to reflect upon the origin of their company as well as describe how the organization might not have emerged had specific events not transpired. Other participants were also asked to reflect upon the origin of their company, but then merely describe these events in more detail rather than contemplate any counterfactual possibilities. The extent to which individuals feel committed to the organization was then assessed. Furthermore, they imagined how they would feel on their last day working for this company. The degree to which this image evoked various positive and negative emotions was assessed& poignancy was operationalized as the minimum rating of happiness or sadness. Finally, participants were asked to assess whether the trajectory of this company was positive or negative.

Counterfactual reflection increased commitment to the organization (Ersner-Hershfield, Galinsky, Kray, & King, 2010). Poignancy mediated this association. That is, when individuals consider counterfactuals, they recognize the possibility the organization might not exist. This possibility incites feelings of poignancy. This poignancy has been shown to amplify the positive features of this organization, enhancing commitment. Consistent with this interpretation, counterfactual reflection increased the likelihood that participants felt the trajectory of their company was positive.

A subsequent study was similar, apart from some adjustments. First, whether individuals feel that working at the company is their destiny was also shown to mediate this association between counterfactual reflection and organizational commitment. Second, counterfactual reflection was beneficial regardless of whether the mission was more cooperative and altruistic or competitive. The final study showed that counterfactual reflection about relationships with colleagues increases the likelihood that people would contact these people in the next two weeks. Thus, counterfactual reflection does not only influence attitudes but can also affect behavior (Ersner-Hershfield, Galinsky, Kray, & King, 2010).

Post traumatic stress

In some individuals, traumatic events may compromise their capacity to develop a sense of meaning and improve their lives. They may feel too overwhelmed to contemplate their future. In other individuals, traumatic events can actually expedite a sense of meaning. That is, individuals may exhibit post-traumatic growth--in which their priorities in life are clarified, relationships are consolidated, personal strengths are recognized, opportunities are uncovered, spiritual beliefs are formed, and a sense of purpose often transpires (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996).

The question, then, is which conditions or characteristics increase the likelihood that trauma will translate into personal growth, purpose, and ultimately meaning. According to Kashdan and Kane (2011), experiential avoidance might prevent this growth (see also acceptance and commitment therapy. Specifically, in contrast to avoidance coping, in which individuals attempt to avoid stressful events or contexts, experiential avoidance also represents the motivation to shun unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations, Furthermore, experiential avoidance is assumed to preclude the motivation and capacity of individuals to pursue their values and goals. Because individuals who demonstrate experiential avoidance strive to shun unpleasant thoughts and emotions, growth is curtailed. That is, to develop insight, individuals must contemplate events and matters that elicit unpleasant cognitions.

Kashdan and Kane (2011) investigated this hypothesis. Participants were first asked to specify the extent to which they experienced symptoms of post traumatic stress over the last month, such as heightened anxiety. In addition, they completed a questionnaire that assessed whether they exhibit experiential avoidance. Finally, scales that assess meaning in life and post traumatic growth were administered. If experiential avoidance was elevated, post traumatic stress was inversely associated with meaning or growth. This negative association, however, diminished as experiential avoidance diminishes. Indeed, if individuals were especially willing to embrace negative thoughts and feelings, trauma was positively associated with growth.

Goal coherence

Goal coherence, or the degree to which the goals of individuals are consistent with one another, is sometimes associated with purpose in life (Gore & Cross, 2010) as well as with other measures such as life satisfaction and well-being (Emmons, 1986& Emmons & King, 1988). In contrast, conflict between the goals and motivations of individuals evokes negative states (e.g., Sheldon, Ryan, Rawsthorne, & Ilardi, 1997).

Gore and Cross (2010) argued that, perhaps, the association between goal coherence, at least across academic goals, and purpose in life or life satisfaction may be moderated by relational self construal (see self construal theory). Relational self construal is defined as the extent to which people define themselves by their close relationships, represented by items like "My close relationships are an important reflection of who I am".

That is, some people like to perceive themselves as consistent over time. If their goals are inconsistent with each other, these individuals are not as motivated to achieve these objectives. Furthermore, they are not certain of their objectives, compromising their capacity to define themselves. However, if individuals report an elevated relational self construal, inconsistencies across these goals can be tolerated. These individuals define themselves by their friends. They are also motivated to accommodate close friends and relatives. Consistency across goals could undermine this flexibility.

Gore and Cross (2010) substantiated this account. In one study, they measured goal dependence, which is the degree to which the attainment of one goal facilitates the attainment of another goal. To measure goal dependence, Gore and Cross (2010) utilized a procedure in which participants first generated a list of seven goals. The goals could be related to future roles, such as "to be a good parent", accomplishments, such as "to secure a job", or modes of living, such as "to be optimistic". Next, participants were asked to specify the extent to which they felt the obstruction of one goal would also affect the achievement of another goal. Participants answered this question for each pair of goals. Gore and Cross (2010) also derived separate measures of goal dependency for academic goals and relational goals.

When relational self construal was low, the usual positive relationship between goal dependency across academic goals and life satisfaction was observed. When relational self construal was high, however, these benefits of goal dependency across academic goals subsided. Indeed, a negative association between goal dependency and life satisfaction was observed.

In the second study, Gore and Cross (2010) measured goal instrumentality. Participants again listed a series of seven goals. However, they were asked to specify the extent to which the attainment of one goal would facilitate or impede the achievement of another goal. Again, participants answered this question for each pair of goals. Furthermore, purpose in life was also assessed.

Consistent with the hypotheses, the association between goal instrumentality across academic goals and purpose in life was moderated by relational self construal. That is, the benefits of goal instrumentality across academic goals were observed only when relational self construal was low.

Sense of coherence in words or objects

Sometimes, words or objects seem coherent with each other. For example, a series of photographs might depict the four seasons in order: perhaps a photograph of the snow, blossoms, sun, and falling leaves in that order. Or, people can be exposed to a set of three words, like falling, actor, and dust, that actually all correspond to the same term--in this example, star. During other times, words or objects may be inconsistent with each other: the seasons may be depicted in a random order or sets of three words may be unrelated to each other.

As Heintzelman, Trent, and King (2013) showed, after individuals are exposed to coherent words or objects, they tend to perceive their life as more meaningful. Seasons depicted in order or triads of words that correspond to the same term increase the likelihood that participants will agree to statements like "I have a sense of direction and purpose in life". These results were observed regardless of whether the stimuli were salient or incidental.

Presumably, when people are exposed to coherent patterns, the world does not seem as chaotic or random. Consequently, people feel their behaviors affect the world in meaningful ways, fostering a sense of meaning.

Reflections about mortality

According to terror management theory, individuals experience a sense of existential angst after they contemplate their mortality. That is, they feel their life is ultimately futile. To override this sense of futility, they like to believe their contributions will last forever. They want to believe their activities now will confer some benefit in the future (Landau, Kosloff, & Schmeichel, 2010). In other words, they like to believe their activities are meaningful and significant.

Therefore, as Landau, Kosloff, and Schmeichel (2010) showed, after individuals contemplate their mortality, they become more inclined to perceive their activities as meaningful. For example, as the first study showed, when mortality is salient, individuals are more inclined to describe activities with reference to abstract objectives rather than concrete actions (cf., construal level theory. An emphasis on abstract objectives enables individuals to appreciate the future benefits of their immediate actions.

Specifically, in this study, some participants were first exposed to words that relate to death, such as burial, corpse, dead, decay, die, and funeral, embedded within a word task. Next, participants completed the Behavioral Identification Form. To illustrate, they received a description of an act, such as "locking the door". They had to decide whether this act corresponds most closely to an abstract objective, like "securing the house" or a concrete action, like "putting a key in the lock". Exposure to words that relate to death evoked an abstract perspective.

In the second study, participants were instructed to contemplate either their death or rejection by friends. Next, they wrote 5 five words, each of which represent a key goal they would like to accomplish in the next 40 years, such as "grandchildren" to represent nurturing many happy grandchildren. In addition, they wrote 10 words, each of which represents a specific activity they plan to complete in the next few days. Finally, they specified which of these activities may be related to each goal. If participants had considered their mortality, instead of a rejection, they were more likely to specify that many of the activities were associated with the various future goals. They were able to derive meaning from their immediate activities.

The final study showed that, after individuals contemplate their mortality, they believe their life would have unfolded very differently had a few events or action in their life, such as meeting a person, not eventuated. That is, they perceived past events in their life as particularly significant and influential (Landau, Kosloff, & Schmeichel, 2010).


Many therapeutic interventions have been developed specifically to foster a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Logotherapy, for example, promulgated by Frankl (1959, 1963), is intended to assist individuals seek meaning in life, thus, facilitating a recognition of their genuine purpose, divorced from social forces and obligations. Frankl derives may of his insights from his experiences of the holocaust--and the perspectives he developed to survive. According to Frankl, in previous eras, tradition, religion, and other community structures conferred a sense of meaning in life, clarifying the direction and purpose of individuals. Because these structure have partly eroded, individuals must assume the responsibility to seek meaning themselves, to circumvent an existential vaccuum.

Logotherapy is derived from the Greek word logo, which connates meaning. Specifically, logotherapy entails several key tenets (for more information, see Crumbaugh, 1980, 1981& Crumbaugh & Maholick, 1964& Crumbaugh, Wood, & Wood, 1980& DuBois, 2007). First, life can always be imbued with meaning, even in miserable circumstances. Second, our primary motivation to live is to derive meaning from life. Third, individuals can always seek and find meaning in their experiences and activities.

According to Frankl, meaning can be derived from three sources. First, individuals can derive meaning from acting altruistically--that is, by enacting virtuous deeds. Second, individuals can derive meaning from experiencing a key value, such as nature, art, and love. Indeed, according to Frankl (1958), individuals are more inclined to perceive their life as meaningful after they feel unique and special. Third, individuals can derive meaning from suffering. In contrast, hedonism and materialism, for example, tend to distract from this pursuit of meaning.

Logotherapy is also the origin of paradoxical intention in which individuals attempt to foster the very experiences they really want to avoid, such as anxiety (see Ascher & Schotte, 2006& Fabry, 1982& Frankl, 1975& Yoder, 1994). In particular, according to Frankl, many individuals experience anxieties about a forthcoming event, such as a public speech. As a consequence, they often form hyper-intentions--which is an intention to fulfill some unattainable goal, such as avoid all signs of anxiety while speaking. This unattainable goal merely magnifies the anxiety and inflates the problem. A logotherapist would recommend that partcipants deliberately attempt to amplify their symptoms, which curbs the anticipatory anxiety.

Logotherapy is used to treat many illnesses. In particular, regimes have been created to treat anxiety (e.g., Rogina, 2002), depression (e.g., Ungar, 2002), mood disorder because of medical conditions (Henrion, 2004), borderline personality (Rodrigues, 2004), drinking problems (Crumbaugh, 1980, 1981), relationship dysfunction (Winters, 2002), and PTSD (Southwick, Gilmartin, McDonough, & Morrissey, 2006).

Logotherapy is not intended to complement not supercede other interventions. For example, logotherapy is often combined with rational emotive therapy (e.g., Hutchinson & Chapman, 2005) and acceptance and commitment therapy (e.g., (Sharp, Schulenberg, Wilson, & Murrell, 2004& Sharp, Wilson, & Schulenberg, 2004).

Socratic dialogue is often applied to derive meaning (Fabry, 1994& Guttmann, 1996& Hutzell, 1990). That is, the therapist asks a series of questions to clients, intended to facilitate an exploration of personal life meanings--that is, their purposes, direction, mission, and values. Next, questions explore how these purposes are pursued. The questions are also intended to highlight the many choices that are available to pursue this meaning. If clients are currently experiencing an acute issue, the therapist might ask the person about how they acted in response to similar situations in the past, intended to prompt other meaningful pursuits, values, thoughts, and motivations that could be applied to this situation.

Logotherapy techniques

Apart from Socratic dialogue and paradoxical intention, logotherapists practice a variety of other techniques. One of the most popular is logoanalysis, developed by Crumbaugh (1973), and validated by Hutzell and colleagues (Hutzell, 1983, Hutzell & Eggert, 1989& Hutzell & Jerkins, 1995). This technique is often applied to individuals who experience boredom and apathy, reflecting inadequate meaning in life--a state that often evolves into transgressions, distress, and addictions. Logoanalysis entails a systematic sequence of mental and written exercises, intended to set a direction in life and formulate achievable goals to pursue this meaning. The meaning of life evaluation scale, for example (Crumbaugh & Henrion, 2004& Henrion, 2001), enables individuals to recognize their hierarchy of meaningful values. Pairs of values are chosen from a set of 20 examples, including friendship, acceptance, and health. Individuals select the value that is most important to their life--and the 5 key priorities are identified.

Second, the mountain range exercise was developed by Ernzen (1990), although first broached by Frankl (1986). A mountain range is drawn. The participants specify individuals who are important to them on the peaks, such as family, friends, celebrities, managers, and so forth. Participants are then asked to specify what facets they share in common with these individuals. This activity is intended to identify qualities in themselves they admire and clarifies their values (see also Pattakos, 2004, for an application to the workplace).

Third, in the movies exericse, discussed by Schulenberg (2003), participants are first asked to construct the outline of a movie about their life thus far. Next, they are asked to construct a movie about their life from now into the future. Features of the movies are discussed, such as the genre, the likely actors, the title, the budget, the twist, and so forth. Discussion of this movie enables individuals to reflect upon their key experiences, formation of their identity, and important relationships, all intended to clarify personal meaning.

Fourth, in the family shoebox game, propounded by Lantz (1993), a family is presented with a shoebox, tape, scissors, and magazines. They are instructed to adhere magazine pictures to the shoebox, all intended to represent family values and meanings. The outside of this box, however, represents values and meanings that are presented or demonstrated to individuals outside this family. The inside of this box, in contrast, represents values and meanings of special significance to the family. This task is designed to facilitate the communication about values and meaning. The capacity to community and understand these values is assumed to stimulate activities that further guide the family members towards this shared meaning and direction.

Social exclusion

Many studies indicate that social exclusion can diminish a sense of meaning in life (e.g., Stillman, Baumeister, Lambert, Crescioni, DeWall, & Fincham, 2009). In one paradigm, for example, individuals complete a computer activity, called Cyberball. The individuals are informed, albeit incorrectly, they are completing this task with other participants, but in separate locations, tossing a graphical representation of a ball to each other. In one condition, the participant is excluded.

When participants are excluded, their sense of meaning in life dissipates. That is, they perceive the task as less meaningful (e.g., Zadro, Williams, & Richardson, 2004& see also Sommer, Williams, Ciarocco, & Baumeister, 2001). Furthermore, if social anxiety is elevated, this sense of exclusion also curbs a sense of meaning 45 minutes later (Zadro, Boland, & Richardson, 2006).

Other manipulations of social exclusion also thwart a sense of meaning. In one study, for example, participants answered some interview questions (Stillman, Baumeister, Lambert, Crescioni, DeWall, & Fincham, 2009). Their answers were recorded on video and this video was distributed to someone else, who was not in the room. To elicit a sense of social exclusion, some participants were then informed this person did not want to meet them. This feedback subsequently reduced meaning, as reflected by questions like "Right now, how meaningful does your life feel?" (Stillman, Baumeister, Lambert, Crescioni, DeWall, & Fincham, 2009).

Furthermore, in another study, feelings of loneliness, representing social exclusions, were correlated with a limited sense of meaning (Stillman, Baumeister, Lambert, Crescioni, DeWall, & Fincham, 2009). Specifically, social exclusion was inversely related to four distinct needs that underpin meaning: purpose, efficacy, value, and self-worth (Stillman, Baumeister, Lambert, Crescioni, DeWall, & Fincham, 2009). Thus, when individuals feel excluded, many of their purposes in life might be obstructed. Their sense of efficacy or control can also dissipate. The extent to which they feel valuable declines--which in turn can reduce their feelings of self worth.


Many studies have shown that a sense of belonging tends to foster meaning in life. But whether this effect is specific to belonging or extends to any positive social experiences was first examined by Lambert, Stillman, Hicks, Kamble, Baumeister, and Fincham (2013). Their first two studies, however, merely replicated the finding that a sense of belonging enhanced meaning in life. In the first study, participants completed a measure that gauges send of belonging, with items including ?I feel like there are many people with whom I belong?. This scale was positively related to meaning in life, measured by items like ?I understand my life?s meaning?. The second study showed replicated this finding, except meaning was assessed by evaluating essays that answered the question ?What makes life meaningful?. In particular, people who reported a limited sense of belonging seemed to imply that life was not meaningful, as gauged by independent judges of their essay.

In third study, sense of belonging, level of social support, and level of appreciation from other people were manipulated before meaning in life was assessed. For example, to induce a sense of belonging, some participants were asked to describe two people or groups to whom they feel they belong. To induce a sense of support from other people, some participants were asked to describe two people from whom they had received support. Finally, to induce level of appreciation, some participants were asked to describe two people from whom they had received a compliment. Finally, all participants indicated the degree to which they feel their life is meaningful now. Sense of belonging was more likely than sense of support or appreciation to foster meaning in life. A final study showed that a sense of belonging indeed mediated the association between this experimental manipulation and meaning in life.

Several reasons could underpin the benefits of belonging. Perhaps, when people belong to an enduring entity, like a community, their contributions now are more likely to be valuable indefinitely into the future, consistent with terror management theory. Alternatively, a sense of belonging enables individuals to feel their life extends beyond their physical body, similar to self-expansion theory. This broader entity entails a diversity of motives and concerns. Their activities, therefore, are more likely to be pertinent to an array of motives. Furthermore, belonging to a collective diminishes uncertainty, also providing meaning.

Attachment style

Attachment style refers to the degree to which people trust they will receive support from significant individuals in their life--as well as the extent to which they feel they will be included rather than excluded. For example, people with an anxious attachment style tend to feel they will be rejected or excluded. People with an avoidant attachment style tend to feel that other people are unsupportive and, therefore, feel uneasy when they become to reliant on someone else. Finally, a secure attachment style implies that people do not feel they will be rejected and also embrace intimacy.

As Bodner, Bergman, and Cohen-Fride (2014) showed, attachment style is associated with meaning in life. Generally, people with a secure attachment style, relative to people with the other attachment styles, are more likely to perceive their life as meaningful& consequently, they are not as inclined to seek or pursue meaning now. High anxious attachment in particular--a tendency that coincides with self doubt--was especially likely to foster this pursuit of meaning. Nevertheless, age and gender affected the association between attachment style and meaning in life.

According to Uren and Wastell (2002), when people adopt a secure attachment style, they perceive the world as safe, predictable, and manageable. That is, if unexpected complications unfold, they feel they will receive support and assistance to surpass these problems. Consequently, they feel they can shape their lives. Their actions now will affect life in the future, analogous to a sense of meaning.

Socio-moral climate

As Schnell, Hoge, and Pollet (2013) showed, when organizations demonstrate a strong socio-moral climate--in which people care and support the wellbeing of one another, encourage collaboration, and candidly resolve conflicts--employees are more likely to experience a sense of meaning in work. In this study, participants completed a measure of socio-moral climate. This measure assessed the degree to which individuals confront social problems, show consistent appreciation, care, and support of one another, encourage participative collaboration, and are responsible to enhance the wellbeing of other people. A sample item is "In our company we deal with conflicts and clashing interests frankly". In addition, a measure of meaning in work was administered, typified by items like "My work matches with my purpose of life" and "My work fulfills me".

A socio-moral climate was positively associated with meaning in work, even after controlling self-efficacy, task significance, and alignment between personal interests and work activities. Presumably, when organizations demonstrate a strong socio-moral climate, the work environment is open, appreciative, and collaborative. Individuals thus experience a sense of belonging. When people experience this sense of belonging, they feel embedded within a force that is larger than are they. Consequently, they feel their activities are central to the needs of other people, manifesting as a sense of meaning.


When individuals experience a connection to nature, their sense of meaning in life tends to increase. Indeed, several features of nature are central to meaning. For example, according to Howell, Passmore, and Buro (2012), nature epitomizes a sense of permanence and continuity that lasts beyond our lifetime, and this sense of permanence and continuity implies that everyday activities could generate enduring and thus meaningful consequences. Alternatively, nature demonstrates that humans are embedded in an encapsulating environment, and this connection to an environment implies that everyday acts produce effects that transcend our own lives.

Consistent with these arguments, Howell, Passmore, and Buro (2012) showed that such connection to nature is indeed associated with meaning in life. In this study, participants completed measures that assess connection to nature, with items like "I enjoy digging in the earth and getting dirt on my hands". Similar questions assessed the degree to which individuals perceive nature as central to their identity. In addition, participants completed measures that assess meaning in life& items included "I understand my life's meaning". Connection to nature was strongly associated with meaning in life, even after controlling measures of social desirability bias and religion.

Mental simulation

Mental simulation is the tendency of humans to imagine themselves in a setting that diverges from their immediate surroundings. As Waytz, Hershfield, and Tamir (2015) showed, when individuals engage in mental simulation, they tend to perceive their life as meaningful: that is, their life seems coherent, significant, and purposeful.

Waytz, Hershfield, and Tamir (2015) conducted a series of studies, each of which show how various indices, measures, or determinants of mental simulation instill life with a sense of meaning. To illustrate, the default brain network, the network that is activated when individuals are not absorbed in an activity, facilitates mind wandering and thus underpins some simulation. The default network comprises three distinct systems. First, the medial temporal lobe comprises the hippocampus, parahippocampal cortex, retrosplenial cortex, and posterior intraparietal lobe. The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, lateral temporal cortex, and temporal-parietal junction represent the second system. Finally, the posterior cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex represent the third system. As Waytz, Hershfield, and Tamir (2015) showed, if individuals reported greater meaning in life, they demonstrated greater connectivity in the medial temporal lobe, potentially indicative of mental simulation .

In Study 2, participants were instructed to write about two events that will unfold up to 40 years in the future, two events that unfolded up to 40 years ago, or two events that unfolded today. Next, they completed a measure that gauges meaning in life. Essays about either the past or future, rather than about the present, were more likely to increase meaning in life. As Study 3 showed, if participants wrote about the future or past in detail, rather than in merely a few words, they were especially likely to experience meaning in life. Study 4 showed that people who wrote about another location in detail, rather than another location in a few words or the existing location, were more likely to experience meaning in life.

Study 5 examined why mental simulation enhances meaning in life. In this study, participants were asked to indicate the degree to which the events they wrote about seem meaningful. The degree to which these events seemed meaningful mediated the association between mental simulation and meaning in life. Study 6 showed that merely asking people to imagine their day unfold in another location fostered meaning in life.

Three mechanisms can explain this effect of mental simulation of meaning. First, during moments of mental simulation, individuals imagine events that might unfold in the future or had unfolded in the past. Past or future events often seem meaningful and significant because they attract the attention of people now--people who are living during a different time. So, individuals recognize they may in the future, or have in the past, engaged in meaningful events, fostering a sense of meaning now.

Second, mental simulation instills a sense of distance from the immediate surroundings, activating an abstract construal, or tendency to appreciate overarching patterns. This capacity highlights that discrete events might be associated with broader pursuits, again instilling meaning.

Third, during the process of mental simulation, individuals exercise their choices, because they are granted autonomy. They can thus express their true self, and this awareness of the true self also fosters meaning, according to past studies.


The degree to which individuals feel grateful to other people in their lives increases the likelihood they will experience meaning in life at a subsequent time. This possibility was explored and verified by Kleiman, Adams, Kashdan, and Riskind (2013). In this study, participants completed a measure of gratitude, epitomized by items like "I am grateful to a wide variety of people", meaning in life, and other scales, at two separate times, separated by a month or so. Gratitude at the first time was positively associated with meaning in life at the second time (see also positive psychology interventions).

When people reflect upon occasions in which they should feel grateful, they perceive their social environment as more supportive. They experience a sense of belonging rather than isolation. As their sense of isolation diminishes, people feel their actions are more important to their environment, translating to a sense of meaning.

Fundamental needs

According to Baumeister (1991), to experience a sense of meaning, four fundamental needs should be fulfilled. First, individuals seek a sense of purpose--a sense their ongoing activities are germane to some future outcome. Their immediate events, therefore, are meaningful to future environments. Second, individuals seek a sense of efficacy or control. They want to feel their actions can affect the environment. Third, individuals want to feel their actions are valuable or moral. They need to feel they have fulfilled some moral standard or code. Fourth, individuals need to feel worthy. That is, they want to feel they have developed desirable traits.

Expectancy theory

van Tilburg and Igou (2013) applied expectancy theory to characterize two core determinants of meaningful behavior: the value attached to a specific goal and the extent to which the behavior is useful for achieving this goal. To illustrate, in one study, participants wrote a about a goal they want to achieve that is either important or not important. Next, they wrote an activity that helped, or did not help, these individuals achieve this goal. Finally, they were asked to indicate the degree to which they perceived this activity as meaningless, senseless, insignificant, and worthless. In general, participants tended to perceive their activity as meaningless if either the goal was not important or the activity did not facilitate the achievement of this goal.

The second study was similar, except all participants rated the same behavior: running on a specific path over a long time. However, the participants imagined different scenarios. For example, to manipulate whether this behavior is instrumental to the goal, they were informed their goal was either to win a marathon or a chess competition. In addition, they were told this goal was either important or not important. Again, the behavior was perceived as more meaningful only if very instrumental to an important goal. The third study uncovered the same pattern of results, even if the goal was quite abstract rather than specific.

In short, meaning is often conceptualized from an epistemic perspective: an act is meaningful if coherent with existing knowledge structures. Yet, meaning could also be conceptualized from a teleological perspective: an act is meaningful if helpful to achieve some vital goal.

Trauma in life

As Krause (2005) showed, if people experience a major trauma in their lives between 18 and 30 years of age, they tend to experience less meaning in life subsequently. However, relationships that provide emotional support, rather than conflict, tend to diminish this effect of trauma on meaning in life.

The data were derived from a longitudinal study. Participants completed a measure that assessed whether they had experienced any of 22 traumatic events?-such as the death of a spouse or child, divorce in the family, abuse, severe illness, or unemployment in the family?-before specifying the age at which they experienced these events. In addition, participants indicated the degree to which they experience meaning in life, such as a sense of purpose, direction, and strong values. Finally, participants specified the degree to which someone in their lives offered emotional support and concern or was unduly demanding, critical, angry, and judgmental. Trauma was inversely associated with meaning, but only when people were also exposed to negative rather than supportive relationships.

Arguably, traumatic events may undermine many of the pursuits of individuals, evoking a sense of helplessness. Supportive friends may enable individuals to reconstruct their sense of purpose and meaning.


Personality can also affect the extent to which people experience meaning in life. In particular, as Woods and Sofat (2013) showed, people who perceive their job as meaningful tend to report elevated levels of assertiveness, industriousness, openness, conscientiousness, and extraversion as well as limited levels of neuroticism. When these personality traits were examined simultaneously in a regression analysis however, only assertiveness, a subset of extraversion, and industriousness, a subset of conscientious, remained significant. Arguably, when people are assertive and industrious, they experience a greater sense of efficacy--and this sense of efficacy is vital to meaning.

Consequences of meaning in life

Mental wellbeing

Some researchers regard meaning of life as a constituent or manifestation of eudamonic wellbeing. That is, the need to derive meaning from events is regarded as a fundamental human motive (Britt, Adler, & Bartone, 2001). As a consequence, individuals are more inclined to embrace stressful events, recognizing the benefits of such episodes (Britt, Adler, & Bartone, 2001)

Other researchers regard meaning of life as an antecedent or correlate of wellbeing (see Savolaine & Granello, 2002& Zika & Chamberlain, 1992). Melton and Schulenberg (2008) showed that meaning in life correlates positively to mood stability and sociable behavior but negatively to distress. Ho, Cheung, and Cheung (2010) showed the optimism partly mediated the association between meaning in life and wellbeing.

Meaning at work, for example, seems to be a core determinant of engagement. Individuals who feel their work relates to a higher purpose, for example, are more satisfied at work and also devote more effort to their job (Sparks & Schenk, 2001). They also regard their unit as more cohesive (Sparks & Schenk, 2001).

Meaningful conversations, rather than trivial chatter, is also associated with well-being, as shown by Mehl, Vazire, Holleran, and Clark (2010). In this study, 300 participants wore an Electronically Activated Recorder for 4 days. This instrument records ambient noise, including conversations, for 30 s every 12.5 minutes. Participants also completed a satisfaction with life scale and a happiness measure, intended to gauge well-being. They also assessed a measure of personality.

Later, another set of individuals coded the conversations. Some of the conversations were classified as small talk--uninvolved, banal discussions in which only trivial information was exchanged. Other conversations were classified as substantive in which meaningful information was exchanged. Happier individuals were significantly more likely to engage in substantive, rather than trivial, conversations. This relationship persisted even after personality was controlled (Mehl, Vazire, Holleran, & Clark, 2010).

Meaningless is also associated with many destructive behaviors. For example, meaningless is related to substance abuse (Newcomb & Harlow, 1986). Similarly, when meaning of life is limited, other mood disturbances are more likely, manifesting as suicidal ideation (Harlow, Newcomb, & Bentler, 1986) and depression (Mascaro & Rosen, 2005) rather than positive affect (Hicks & King, 2007) and happiness (Debats, van der Lubbe, & Wezeman, 1993).

Mental wellbeing in people with social anxiety

When people with social anxiety feel they have devoted effort or experienced progress towards their life purpose--called purpose in life, similar meaning in life--their wellbeing improves. In particular, as Kashdan and McKnight (2013) showed, this purpose in life on one day improved wellbeing on that day and future days, especially in people with social anxiety.

In this study, the participants included people who had been diagnosed with social anxiety and people not diagnosed with any psychological disorder. Across two weeks, each day, the participants completed a suite of measures, such as negative affect, positive affect, self-esteem, and meaning in life. In addition, each day, they were asked to indicate the degree to which they devoted effort, or experienced progress, towards their key striving. On days in which people with social anxiety devoted effort or experienced progress towards their strivings, positive affect, such as joy, self-esteem, and meaning in life subsequently increased. This benefit of purpose in life was not as pronounced in people who had not been diagnosed with social anxiety.

Arguably, people with social anxiety tend to experience a mindset called avoidance, in which they strive to circumvent problems, such as rejection. Over time, these individuals associate events, such as social gatherings, with such avoidance, manifesting as apprehension. In contrast, purpose in life can evoke a mindset called approach, in which individuals strive to achieve inspiring goals. Approach tends to inhibit avoidance and thus diminishes apprehension and anxiety.

Suicidal ideation

Meaning in life is negatively associated with suicide ideation. That is, as Kleiman, Adams, Kashdan, and Riskind (2013) showed, when people feel their life is meaningful, they are not as inclined to contemplate suicide: They feel their actions are meaningful, diminishing the sense of isolation that tends to coincide with suicidal ideation. Furthermore, this study showed that a combination of gratitude and grit--that is, the capacity of people to persevere while pursuing a future aspiration in response to obstacles--promoted this sense of meaning in life, which diminished suicidal ideation.

Physical wellbeing

Indeed, many studies have shown that a sense of purpose and meaning in life has been shown to improve physical health. That is, when purpose or meaning in life is elevated, people tend to live longer (Boyle, Barnes, Buchman, & Bennett, 2009), secrete less cortisol across the day (Lindfors & Lundberg, 2002), and exhibit lower basal levels of the IL-6 receptor (Friedman, Hayney, Love, Singer, & Ryff, 2007)--amplifying the pro-inflammatory effects of the cytokine interleukin 6 and thus enhancing the immune systems.

Bereavement and loss

Many scholars argue that pursuit of meaning is a vital process to recovery after bereavement, loss, or adversity (e.g., Affleck & Tennen, 1996& Janoff-Bulman, 1992& Parkes & Weiss, 1983). In particular, Davis, Nolen-Hoeksema, and Larson (1998) distinguished two forms of meaning: making sense of and event and recognizing the benefits of some experience. Making sense of a loss or adversity includes ascribing the problem to some cause--their lifestyle or God, for example, Recognizing the benefits includes changing goals and a new sense of self or appreciation of life.

Making sense of a loss is especially important in predicting emotional recovery during the first year after a loss. In contrast, recognizing the benefits of some experience predict adjustment between 13 and 18 months after a loss.

Limited boredom

Limited meaning in life, coupled with an adequate sense of challenge, seems to manifest as boredom. Indeed, limited meaning, according to van Tilburg and Igou (2012) seems to differentiate boredom from other negative emotions like sadness, anger, or frustration.

To explore this possibility, in one study, conducted by van Tilburg and Igou (2012), participants were asked to write about an experience in which they felt bored, sad, angry, and frustrated as vividly as possible. Next, for each emotion, they rated the degree to which they felt various feelings, thoughts, tendencies, actions, and goals. Examples included "restless and unchallenged" or "unable to stop thinking about things you would rather do".

Relative to the other emotions, when people felt bored, they were more likely to feel restless and unchallenged at the same time, feel the situation served no important purpose, feel like undertaking an entirely different behavior, shift their attention to more meaningful activities, and fee& the desire to immerse themselves in a meaningful endeavor. As the subsequent studies showed, people who are prone to boredom often experience these tendencies as well. Repetitive tasks also evoked these tendencies.

According to to van Tilburg and Igou (2012), boredom may signal to individuals that perhaps their immediate environment is devoid of challenge and meaning. This state may inspire people to seek more challenge and meaning as a consequence. Accordingly, challenging and meaningful environments may curb the adverse consequences of boredom, such as crime or violence.

Health behavior and substance abuse

Meaning in life might also promote health behavior. When individuals experience a sense of meaning in life, they orient their attention to their future and enduring needs, such as health, instead of merely their immediate concerns. Consistent with this possibility, Konkoly Thege, Bachner, Martos, and Kushnir (2009) showed that daily smokers, relative to non-smokers, were reported lower levels of purpose in life. That is, compared to non-smokers, daily smokers tend to report limited levels of meaning in life. That is, they feel a limited sense of purpose in their lives. Likewise, many studies indicate that meaning in life is limited in people who consume illicit drugs (Rahman, 2001& Waisberg and Starr, 1999). According to Thege et al. (2009), as meaning declines, people experience more discontent, and drug use is explored as a means to relieve these feelings.


If people experience a sense of purpose in life--a state that is related to meaning--their longevity increases. Indeed, purpose in life diminishes the incidence of death throughout the life span (Hill & Turiano, 2014).

In one study, conducted by Hill and Turiano (2014), over 7000 participants completed a measure that assesses the degree to which they perceive their life as purposeful, in which they contemplate the future, rather than aimless. This purpose in life was negatively associated with death over the next 14 years, even after controlling positive affect, negative affect, and closeness of relationships. However, the mechanisms that underpin the benefits of purpose in life were not ascertained definitively.

Openness to diversity

Purpose in life--a state that is similar, but not equivalent to, meaning in life--tends to increase the extent to which diverse cultures evoke positive, rather than negative, emotions in people. This possibility was uncovered by Burrow and Hill (2014) in an intriguing pair of studies.

In the first study, participants were encouraged to complete a survey while aboard a train. Some of the questions assessed the degree to which they have uncovered a life purpose. In addition, the mood of participants was assessed coupled with their resilience, neuroticism, and perception of safety in the surroundings. Furthermore, to estimate the cultural diversity of this train carriage, the experimenters estimated the number of individuals who appeared to be Asian, African, Latino, and European. As hypothesized, when individuals were embedded amongst passengers whose race differed from their own, they tended to experience more negative emotions, after controlling other scales. However, if these participants also reported purpose in life, this relationship dissipated.

The second study was similar, except purpose in life was manipulated experimentally. That is, to prime a sense of purpose, for 10 minutes, participants answered three questions: "What does it mean to have a sense of purpose in life?", "What is your purpose in life?", and "Where did your sense of purpose come from?" In the control condition, participants received similar questions, but about movies rather than purpose. Again, sense of purpose attenuated the association between exposure to diversity and negative emotions.

Several mechanisms could explain the benefits of purpose. First, when individuals are governed by a sense of purpose, they feel inspired to withstand the complications that such endeavors entail. Hence, purpose increases resilience to stress (Smith & Zautra, 2004). Second, purpose can instill a sense of connection towards members of other communities& when individuals are attuned to a broader purpose, they recognize how other individuals, even individuals from other communities, may share overlapping goals. They feel more connected to other people.

Terror management theory

From the perspective of terror management theory, Simon, Arndt, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, and Solomon (1998) argued that meaning in life overcomes the anxiety that coincides with existential angst. That is, when individuals are cognizant of their mortality, they experience a profound sense of angst, because their life and goals seem so futile. The formulation of meaning and purpose in life curbs this angst. In particular, individuals become connected to a cause, purpose, mission, and meaning that can persist even when their material body declines, conferring a sense of symbolic immortality. Such meaning in life counters existential angst

To examine this perspective, in a study conducted by Simon, Arndt, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, and Solomon (1998), some depressed individuals were asked to reflect upon their mortality. Only a portion of these individuals were granted the opportunity to defend their worldviews. This opportunity enhanced their perceived meaning in life. This finding indicates that many defense mechanisms ultimately redress angst by conferring a sense of meaning.

The relationship between unstable meaning in life and wellbeing

According to the meaning maintenance model, people often bias their thoughts to inflate their sense of meaning. That is, some people have not formed the relationships, clarified their purpose, or developed the capabilities that are needed to foster meaning. Instead, they bias their thoughts to convince themselves their lives are meaningful. The sense of meaning in these individuals should be relatively unstable. That is, drops in meaning will often be followed by increases in meaning.

As these arguments imply, individuals who report an unstable sense of meaning may not have foster the conditions--such as close relationships, a clear purpose, or extensive capabilities--that are needed to foster meaning. Because these conditions have not been cultivated, these individuals are not as likely to experience wellbeing.

Steger and Kasdan (2013) uncovered some findings that align to this possibility. As they showed, if meaning varies appreciably across days, individuals are more likely to experience depression and negative affect, even after controlling average levels of meaning.

As these findings imply, the relationships between meaning and wellbeing may have been underestimated in past studies. In past studies, some of the people who report high levels of meaning may have actually distorted their thoughts to reinforce this meaning. If these people had been omitted, the relationship between meaning and other measures may have been more pronounced.

Measures of meaning in life

Meaning in life questionnaire

The meaning in life questionnaire, a relatively short measure, was developed by Steger, Frazier, Oishi, and Kaler (2006). The questionnaire comprises two subscales: search for meaning and presence of meaning. The presence of meaning subscale, which comprises five items, represents the extent to which individuals feel their life is already purposeful and meaningful. Typical items include I understand my life's meaning or My life has no clear purpose (reverse coded). Psychometric properties, including test retest reliability, have been established convincingly.

The search for meaning subscale represents the extent to which individuals are seeking purpose and meaning.

Purpose in life test

Another similar measure was developed by Crumbaugh and Maholik (1964). Typical items include In life, I have very clear goals and aims and I regard my ability to find a meaning, purpose, or mission in life to be very great. These two items, together with My personal existence is very purposeful and meaningful and I have clear goals and a satisfying purpose in life, were the four questions used by Schlegel, Hicks, Arndt, and King (2009). This scale has been used extensively (e.g., Hicks & King, 2007, 2008) and is highly correlated with presence of meaning in the meaning of life questionnaire (r = .79).

Other scales have also been developed. Chamberlain and Zika (1988) assesses some of these scales (see also Debats, 1998).

Other dimensions of meaning

Poumlhlmann, Gruss, and Joraschky (2006) developed another approach, in which quantitative indices were derived from qualitative answers, to gauge four facets of meaning of life. These indices assessed:

Differentiation, elaboration, and coherence were positively related to measures of health, wellbeing, and life satisfaction. These three indices were also elevated in theology students relative to science students.

This measure comprised several phases: First, participants were granted five minutes to transcribe every element, experience, or belief that conferred a sense of meaning to their life. Second, they were granted two minutes to rank these answers in order of importance. Third, participants were granted five minutes to show how these elements are related to one another.

These elements were assigned to eight different domains: relationships, jobs or schooling, wellbeing, pleasure, self actualization, altruism or service, beliefs, and material possessions. To estimate the four indices:

Meaning at work

Some scales have been developed to assess meaning in particular domains, such as work.

A scale developed by Ashmos and Duchon (2000), called the workplace spirituality scale, assesses the degree to which work confers a sense of meaning and purpose. Some examples of the six items include I see a connection between my work and the larger social good of my community as well as The work I do is connected to what I think is important in my life. The level of internal consistency is .84. This scale is correlated with measures of wellbeing (Arnold, Turner, Barling, Kelloway, & McKee, 2007)

Definitions of meaning: Meaning versus purpose

Many researchers use the terms meaning and purpose interchangeably. Yet, according to Login, and Park (2013), some of the most common conceptualizations of meaning differ from the most common conceptualizations of purpose. In particular, as epitomized by the meaning maintenance model, meaning implies that individuals understand how the various activities or events in their life are coherent with each other and are significant and important in some sense. That is, when people experience meaning in life, their world is comprehendible and significant rather than incoherent and random.

In contrast, purpose tends to imply the activities of individuals are directed towards some important goal or outcome. That is, when people experience a sense of purpose, they feel committed to some aspiration or pursuit. Meaning thus emphasizes a sense of coherence and significance, whereas purpose emphasizes a sense of direction and commitment.

Often, meaning and purpose coincide. If individuals are committed to some goal, indicative of purpose, they are likely to feel their activities cohere to this pursuit and are thus significant in some sense, indicative of meaning. Yet, individuals may also commit to some purpose, such as to earn wealth, that does not seem significant or coherent with the rest of their life. Consistent with these possibilities, as Login, and Park (2013) showed, scales that assess meaning (e.g., "I find my life very meaningful") generate correlations of about .61 with scales that assess purpose (e.g., "Sometimes, people wander aimlessly throughout life, but I am not one of them")--a correlation that is high but not excessive.

Furthermore, the correlates of meaning differ from the correlates of purpose (Login & Park, 2013). For example, spirituality at one time, a perspective that can instil activities with significance, enhances meaning but not purpose subsequently. Likewise, in cancer survivors, meaning is positively associated with posttraumatic growth, whereas purpose is associated with a decrease in intrusive thoughts, presumably because the direction of individuals is clear, diminishing uncertainty.

Related perspectives

Quests for significance and suicide bombers

Kruglanski, Chen, Dechesne, Fishman, and Orehek (2009) maintain that suicide bombing might represent the pursuit of meaning, which they refer to as a quest for significance. In particular, these authors argued that all individuals seek personal significance--an aspiration or cause that transcends their own immediate, personal needs. Suicidal terrorism might fulfil this need (e.g., Crenshaw, 2007).

Indeed, suicide bombing entails features that could bestow this sense of significance. For example, these individuals might be perceived as heroes or martyrs& their actions, thus, are maintained in the collective memory of their collective. Their identity is thus immortal rather than transient, which reinforces or reinforces their significance (see Elster, 2005).

In addition, martyrdom, called Shahadat in jihadist ideology, is assumed to attract endless and enduring pleasure (Hafez, 2006). In other words, the ideology of a culture might translate a quest for significance in individuals into a willingness to sacrifice their lives.

From this perspective, several factors might increase the likelihood of suicide bombing. First, when the mortality of individuals is often highlighted, suicide bombing should become more probable. That is, according to terror management theory (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Rosenblatt, Veeder, Kirkland, & Lyon, 1990), an awareness of mortality should evoke this pursuit of significance (see Terror management theory)--and thus might incite suicide terrorism in some individuals.

Consistent with this perspective, in a comprehensive analysis of interviews with associates of Chechen suicide terrorists, Spekhard and Akhmedova (2005) showed that family traumas had changed the lives of these radicals. Over 80% of these individuals had lives secular lives until a family member was killed or tortured. In almost 50% of these instances, two or more family members had been killed. These events underscore mortality and thus could evoke this quest for significance.

The quest for significance can alleviate the anxiety and angst that death provokes. Aligned to this proposition, Durlak (1972) showed that purpose in life is indeed inversely related to fear of death. Similarly, when meaning is infringed, after a sense of belonging dissipates, individuals are more likely to be distracted with thoughts about death (Mikulincer, Florian, Birnbaum, & Malishkevich, 2002).

Second, suicide bombing should be more prevalent when the perceived significance of individuals is compromised--when they experience isolation or dislocation, for example (Kruglanski, Chen, Dechesne, Fishman, & Orehek, 2009). Certainly, anecdotal evidence vindicates this argument. Wafa Adris, the first female suicide terrorist in Palestine, was infertile. She was motivated to demonstrate her pride and purpose in life (Pedahzur, 2004). Another female suicide bomber was shunned after rumors of extramarital sex (Pedahzur, 2004).

Third, when individuals feel they are victim of injustice, suicide bombing should become more likely. Injustice is often conceptualized as a signal of disrespect or disdain. Hence, individuals feel they are perceived as inferior or insignificant (Kruglanski, Chen, Dechesne, Fishman, & Orehek, 2009). Many suicide terrorists, indeed, do feel they were targets of discrimination (Sageman, 2004). They feel they or their collectives are not granted the religious rights (e.g., Hafez, 2007) or civil rights (Pape, 2005), such as respect, they deserve.

Several authors, such as Bloom (2009), have challenged the proposition that a quest for significance underpins suicidal terrorism. First, according to Bloom (2009), the theory does not explain--at least not convincingly--why only a minute number of individuals ever evolve to become suicide bombers. That is, the mortality of many individuals is underscored& other events also undermine their significance& they are often exposed to ideologies that convert this quest into suicide. Yet, suicide bombing does remain relatively infrequent.

Nevertheless, Kruglanski, Chen, Dechesne, Fishman, and Orehek (2009) does highlight that a quest for significance will translate into suicidal terrorism only in specific circumstances. In particular, suicidal terrorism will emerge only when individuals perceive their collective to be subject to acute dangers, demanding an extreme response.

Second, this theory attempt to impute terrorist acts to individual factors--perhaps neglecting the key role of contextual properties (cf. Bloom, 2009& Gill, 2007). Nevertheless, in conflict with these concerns, this theory does assume the context underpins the evolution of ideologies that vindicate suicide.

Third, the empirical evidence that underpins this theory has been challenged. Kruglanski, Chen, Dechesne, Fishman, and Orehek (2009), for example, scrutinized videos, accumulated by the Middle East Media Research Institute and the Palestinian Media Watch. They highlighted that many suicidal terrorists had previously referred to significant pursuits, such as oppression, vengeance, crusades, honor, and so forth. Bloom (2009) highlighted the sources of these videos represent anti-Palestinian organizations, which could bias the sample of sources that were accumulated. Nevertheless, according to Kruglanski, Chen, Dechesne, Fishman, and Orehek (2009), this bias is unlikely to inflate the role of personal significance in these videos.

Fourth, the definition of personal significance is ambiguous. This concept was not delineated or demarcated definitively. Thus, almost any event can be conceptualized as an obstacle to significance. The theory, thus, cannot readily distinguish which factors will provoke terrorist behavior (Bloom. 2009). Nevertheless, some other authors have defended this theory (e.g., Crenshaw, 2009& Post, 2009).

Sense of coherence

Sense of coherence does roughly correspond to a sense of meaning. Specifically, sense of coherence relates to the degree to which individuals experience a pervasive sense of confidence in their environment and that life will unfold as well as anticipated (Antonovsky, 1979). In essence, sense of coherence blends optimism with a sense of control.

Sense of coherence comprises three facets: comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness. Events are perceived as comprehensible if they are consistent and ordered, progressing logically and expectedly. Manageability reflects the degree to which individuals can cope with changes in the environment. Finally, meaningfulness represents whether individuals commit to challenges to fulfill some purpose.

A calling

Some people experience a calling to pursue a particular vocation or lifestyle, such as parenting (e.g., Coulson, Oades, & Stoyles, 2012). Coulson, Oades, and Stoyles (2012) reviewed the various definitions of calling. They defined calling as a sense of destiny to fulfill a specific role in life that may involve sacrifice and contributes meaningfully to the common good.

As they highlighted, a calling implies that a role is central to the identity, purpose, or mission of people and instills a sense of meaning. Usually, individuals feel this calling is derived from some other source, such as the needs of their community, their family, or their god. Their responsibilities then engulf their consciousness and may entail a sense of sacrifice--but a sacrifice that individuals welcome. Indeed, individuals tend to feel passionate about these responsibilities.

Many studies have demonstrated the benefits of this calling. Specifically, this calling is associated with satisfaction in a specific domain as well as satisfaction in life and wellbeing more generally (Bellah et al., 1985& Coulson, Oades, & Stoyles, 2012, Peterson, Park, Hall, & Seligman, 2009).


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